A powerful Hollywood agent is made an offer he may or may not refuse. 2,022 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Cliff Gehr slipped outside the Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts and onto its marble patio in Beverly Hills. It was the premiere party for Bobby’s Baby Bump, a semi-offensive PG comedy fantasy about an NFL player who becomes pregnant and decides to have the child. Cliff had arranged the financing for the film through his agency, Gehr Creative Artists. In the past hour, Cliff had congratulated the screenwriter, a client who had recently renounced Scientology on TMZ, and bear-hugged star Carlo Carpetti, the former wrestler turned movie star who was also a client, and winked at the female lead, whose stylist had dusted her cleavage with glitter and who would be, by Cliff’s calculations, a client by the end of the week. He had also conferred in hushed tones with the head banker on an upcoming Japanese video game deal and caressed his wife’s back as she drank her second vodka tonic.
Now, for the first time all night, he was what he wanted to be: alone.
When had he started hating his life so much? It must have been five years ago.
Starting his own agency with nothing more than a bunch of syndicated TV shows, he’d had an enormous appetite for the business. As he stole clients from other agencies and arranged financing for films, he had been thrilled to attend opening nights, Beverly Hills dinner parties and even the Oscars. His natural hunger to make the best deals had earned him the nickname “Jaws.” Famously, he had missed his father’s funeral to close a deal with Deutsche Bank to underwrite ten Sony films.
But lately, returning home from the office, he kept taking a detour to a shopping mall in Reseda. He parked his expensive car in the lot and watched the mostly Latino families as they held hands and walked towards Target or Toy”R”Us. They had no money, no status, and cars that were falling apart. Yet they seemed so happy.
Cliff suddenly wished he smoked so that he could lean against the Annenberg’s garden wall and take a deep exhausted drag on a butt before he flicked it into the darkness beyond the patio. I’ve cultivated the wrong vices, he thought. Smoking would have been so much more fun than greed and envy.
At that moment, a wisp of smoke curled from out of the darkness, followed by an older man wearing sunglasses and holding a cigarette. The man was Chinese and he was impeccably dressed in a gray silk shantung suit. He approached Cliff.
“Are you unhappy, Mr. Gehr?”
Cliff stared at him in fright. “Get away from me.”
“You just look so lonely standing there. So empty.”
“How would you know?”
“That’s my business, Mr. Gehr,” the man said as he extinguished his cigarette in the small bucket of sand next to Cliff. “Always, they say, ‘Where there’s smoke…’” The Chinese man left the sentence unfinished as he waved his hand softly through the night air.
“You’re nuts,” said Cliff, starting to move away while simultaneously wanting to stay.
“Perhaps,” said the Chinese man. “But you’re dead inside. And that’s worse.”
“You don’t know a thing about me,” countered Cliff.
“On the contrary,” said the Chinese man as he lit another cigarette. “I know that you are the biggest agent in Hollywood. I know that you have made close to two hundred million dollars over the past ten years. And I know that you often go to the Reseda mall to watch the families shopping on weekends.”
Cliff gasped involuntarily. “It’s a crime to stalk people.”
“It’s a greater crime not to help yourself. I repeat, are you unhappy, Mr. Gehr?”
“If you’re some kind of of psychoana…”
“Please, Mr. Gehr,” said the Chinese man. “psychoanalysis is for amateurs. I am talking about changing your life. Freeing yourself to do the things you truly want to do, what your current life doesn’t allow. If you are sick of the way you live and the routines that have come to rule your existence, then I can be of help to you.”
“Take this,” said the Chinese man as he pressed a small solid gold card into Cliff’s hand.
Cliff looked down and read the card: DOUBLES. A. Chinaman. 34 ½ Jung Jing Rd. Chinatown.
Just then, Cliff heard his wife Katherine’s voice from the other side of the patio. “Cliff? What are you doing out here by yourself?” She had Carlo Carpetti and the remains of her second vodka with her.
“We thought you dumped us, good buddy,” joked Carlo.
“Are you looking for Mary Ann Simpson?” chuckled Katherine. Cliff smiled weakly at the joke about his senior prom date, the girl his father had told him he should have married instead of Katherine. His wife could never let it go, even though Cliff had last seen Mary Ann thirty five years ago.
An Entertainment Tonight reporter rushed up to them, all blond hair and teeth. “Carlo, you were hysterical in the movie!” she exclaimed.
“Thank you, Mindy,” he replied.
“I think you could get an Oscar nomination,” she continued
“You must have seen another film, sweetheart” said Carlo as the group broke into good-natured laughter.
Cliff looked for the Chinese man but he had disappeared back into the darkness. There was not even a wisp of smoke left to recall him.
Cliff arrived at his office at 7:00 am the next morning to find his assistant. Ted, waiting for him. An article in Fortune about Cliff had convinced Ted to quit law school and spend upwards of sixty hours a week fielding Cliff’s calls, getting his coffee, picking up his dry cleaning and anything else that his master might need. Ted, who routinely arrived at six am, had awoken late this morning and Cliff saw that there was still a small piece of toilet paper stuck to the side of his neck where the young man had cut himself shaving.
“Let’s get the Japanese on the line,” snapped Cliff as he stopped at Ted’s desk. “And get rid of that toilet paper. It makes you look like a degenerate.”
By 11:00 am, Cliff was listening to Sab Shimo, head of the video game company, explain for the fourth time why he could not meet the financial demands of Cliff’s client. Cliff’s mind began to drift. He reached into his pants pocket where, quite deliberately, he had placed the card he had been given last night. He turned it over in his hand and looked at it: DOUBLES. A. Chinaman. 34 ½ Jung Jing Road. Chinatown.
What the hell was this about?
He pulled out his iPad while Shimo kept talking. Jung Jing Road was a small street in the heart of Downtown L.A.’s Chinatown district; there was #34 Jung Jing and #36, but no listing for #34 ½.
The call was over and Cliff quickly tore off his headset and picked up his briefcase. Stopping at Ted’s desk, Cliff said, “I’m going to play a couple of sets of tennis and take a steam. I’ll be back in two to three hours.”
Ted had never heard Cliff talk about tennis before but knew better than to question his boss. “Do you want me to put any calls through to your cell?”
Jung Jing Road turned out to be a tiny one block street in the heart of the tourist section. A crooked alleyway ran between #34, a souvenir shop, and #36, another souvenir shop. Cliff walked it until he came to some cement stairs on the side of the #34 building that led down to a metal door that was bolted shut. On it, in letters that made Cliff think of his grandmother’s mahjong tiles, was the address 34½ Jung Jing Road.
He descended the steps and approached the door. His stomach was tied in a knot of anxiety and anticipation, the same feeling he experienced the first time he’d had sex. He knocked on the metal door hard enough that it made his knuckles ache.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said the Chinese man from the night before as he opened the door and ushered Cliff inside. It was a small dingy room with two chairs and a table and a full bar with counter, bottles and a working sink. A statue of Buddha had been placed as decoration.
“You were sure I’d come?” asked Cliff as he sat down. The man nodded. “I don’t know what to call you,” continued Cliff. “On your card it says ‘A,’ period, ‘Chinaman.’”
“That is correct,” the man replied. “My family is Chinese. My last name is Chinaman.”
“What does the ‘A’ stand for?”
“People always ask. I tell some that it could be Abraham. Others that it could be Anonymous. Perhaps you should simply call me ‘Mr. A.’”
“I can’t believe you’re not smoking,” said Cliff, attempting a casual note.
“There is no smoking here,” Mr. A replied sternly. “But I can offer you a drink.”
“Okay. And I’d like to hear more about your services.”
Mr. A walked over to the bar, poured two drinks into porcelain cups, and returned to the table. “Plum wine,” he said as he offered a cup to Cliff, who gagged on his first sip.
Mr. A sat back down at the table and leaned over to Cliff in an intimate, almost conspiratorial, manner. “Yes. I believe you could be a candidate for our services. We have reviewed you very carefully,” Mr. A said as he pulled the cuffs of his shirt into place. “Your life is filled with meaningless duties and obligations. You yearn to be free of them and have the time and freedom to do what you truly desire. And we can do that for you.”
“You work in movies, Mr. Gehr. You know the concept of stunt doubles, the people who come in and do the hard and dangerous things that stars will not do. Properly edited, it is a flawless illusion and the audience is none the wiser.”
“I’m not sure where you’re headed with this,” said Cliff.
“We’re already there,” replied Mr. A. “We provide you with a double, a facsimile of you, that does what you don’t want to do during the day. It is an animatronic creature that is digitally programmed with your speech and memory patterns. It is prepared to play you anytime that you want to leave and pursue other things. That is why our company is called ‘Doubles,’ you see.”
Cliff leaned back in his chair. “I can’t believe I came all the way to Chinatown for this bullshit.” He stood up.
“Wait, Mr. Gehr,” said Mr. A, raising his hand with authority. He then picked up his plum wine and threw it against the Buddha on the bar. The cup shattered into pieces and the entire bar began to rise, revealing an enamel wall behind it.
“This is a façade, Mr. Gehr. A breakaway wall like they have in the movies.” Mr. A took Cliff’s hand and led him to a door in the enamel wall and pulled Cliff through it.
“Wait a minute here,” protested Cliff. “I’m not going any…”
“Mr Gehr, there is no one here but us,” said Mr. A as he switched on the light. “And your client, Mr. Carpetti.”
Lying on a steel table in the sterile white room was a life-sized replica of Carlo Carpetti. It was perfect in every detail: thick curly hair, a scar above the actor’s eye, an enormous chest. A towel had been draped across his mid-section.
Cliff was awestruck and moved slowly around the replica, inspecting the fingernails, the hair on the arms, the shape of the ears. Each was perfect. Cliff looked over at the towel and Mr. A nodded at him. He picked it up, gasped, and dropped it quickly back into place. Cliff had heard repeatedly that Carlo was enormously well hung.
“Sometimes a demonstration is much better than an explanation,” said his host.
“This is like Westworld,” marveled Cliff.
Mr. A smiled. “Westworld, like psychoanalysis, is for amateurs. And we cost a great deal more.”